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QUB rift grows as Seamus Heaney centre opens in Bellaghy

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 28/09/2016

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney
The new centre in Bellaghy

An embarrassing rift over the legacy of Seamus Heaney has emerged involving his alma mater Queen's University and a new visitors' centre built with the blessing of his family.

The £4m HomePlace is due to open in the late poet's native Bellaghy tomorrow.

But it has raised tensions with Queen's, where the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry is already well established.

A source said: "This has raised tensions over the Heaney legacy and opened what is a highly embarrassing rift between his alma mater and the centre, which of course has the support of the Heaney family."

Plans to drive a multi-million dual carriageway through 'Heaney country' have attracted controversy for the past decade.

The campaign to re-route the road is supported by many important cultural voices such as Edna and Michael Longley, Bernard O'Donoghue, Colm Toibin, Roy Foster and Stephen Rea.

In a recent interview Professor Fran Brearton, Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University, said that "it is an imperative now, even more so than it was when (Heaney) himself protested against this development, to protect a legacy that exists, beautifully, both in physical form, and in the landscape of the poems that bring international visitors to this area."

"It is to do with legacy and protecting a priority landscape, but unfortunately that's something that is very hard to legislate for," she added.

"It seems to me rather short-sighted. You are not putting one little road through, you are putting a massive dual carriageway through."

Adding to the tension is a planned protest against a new road which threatens to lay waste to swathes of Heaney country.

The A6 upgrade involves a new stretch of dual carriageway close to Heaney's former home.

But campaigners have claimed that it will devastate land that inspired the Nobel Prize-winning poet to write some of his most famous works.

A protest is due to take place tomorrow - on the very day the Seamus Heaney HomePlace is opened.

It appears to be supported by a number of Queen's students. A bus taking supporters to the protest is due to leave the gates of the university.

The source added: "The timing of this protest against the road is ugly, embarrassing and no coincidence.

"One wonders what Seamus Heaney would have made of it all."

Queen's did not respond to requests for comment.

A number of academics from the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's are also understood to be behind an online fundraising campaign challenging the A6.

The crowdfunding drive to meet legal and campaign fees to "save" Heaney country and reroute the A6 has generated just over £2,000 of its £7,000 target.

The page claims the new road is "a devastating act of institutionalised vandalism."

Earlier this month the Belfast Telegraph visited the stretch of countryside at the centre of the road row and found opinion divided.

Caroline Evans said: "I don't want this road. It's going to take away a lot of my property."

However, another local, Thomas Farrell, was more positive.

"Anything that does away with the congestion has to be welcomed," he added.

The new Heaney visitors' centre is dedicated to his life and work and aims to attract 35,000 visitors a year.

It is built on the site of a former police station in Bellaghy.

The poet, who died in August 2013, grew up and is buried in the village. HomePlace is being run by Mid-Ulster District Council.

The centre's manager Brian McCormick is Seamus Heaney's nephew. Earlier this year, Mr McCormick said that he believed it would draw in the crowds.

"We've set ourselves a target of 35,000 visitors per year," he added. "While it's a rural area we're obviously positioned almost halfway between Belfast and Derry.

"Actually, in recent discussions with Fr Dolan, who is the parish priest, he has indicated that people already travel to visit Seamus Heaney's grave and sign the visitors book there."

In 2007 during the first public inquiry into the road, local Heaney expert and tour guide Eugene Kielt succeeded in rerouting the road away from the port's childhood homestead - a campaign in which he appeared to be a lone voice.

A more recent inquiry considered environmental factors and Chris Hazzard, Infrastructure Minister, gave the go-ahead in August.

Belfast Telegraph

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